When driving through the elongated state of Florida, many people make the grave mistake of speeding through the Northeast without as much as a single stop beyond the Cracker Barrels, Denny's, and gas stations lining the highways. Thankfully, Juan Ponce de León made the fortunate mistake of discovering just how magnificent the northeast part of the state is. You would do well to follow in his footsteps.
Northeast Florida traces its roots back to 1513, when the wandering de León, who later undertook a misguided quest for the Fountain of Youth, landed somewhere between present-day Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral. (He was a bit off course -- he meant to land in what is now Bimini -- but who can blame a guy who didn't have GPS?) Observing the land's lush foliage, he named it La Florida, or "the flowery land."
In 1565, the Spanish established a colony at St. Augustine, the country's oldest continuously inhabited European settlement. Not much, if anything at all, has changed in St. Augustine (in a wonderful way). The streets of the restored Old City look much as they did in Spanish times.
Not everything in Northeast Florida is antiquated, however. To the south, there's the "Space Coast," where rockets blast off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. In Cocoa Beach, you can watch surfers riding the rather sizable waves. In Daytona, brace yourself for the deafening roar of the stock cars and motorbikes that make this beach town the "World Center of Racing." And don't blink, because you wouldn't want to miss Daytona's other pop-cultural phenomenon, known as Spring Break. In recent years, it has dwindled from a whopping 400,000 party-hearty kids down to a crowd so tame, the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau no longer maintains student visitor estimates!
Going north along the coast, you'll come to a place that's a far cry from being populated with Spring Breakers on a budget: the moneyed haven of Ponte Vedra Beach, where golf takes precedence over manual labor. In Jacksonville, Florida's largest metropolis and a thriving port city and naval base, you can get a taste of city life before retreating to the beach.
Up near the state line, cross a bridge to Amelia Island, where you'll discover exclusive resorts that take advantage of 13 miles of beautiful beaches. Amelia's Victorian-era town, Fernandina Beach, is another throwback to the past, helping to further render the northeast region a fascinating juxtaposition of the old, the new, and somewhere in between.